Flooded hallways, leaky roofs, a persistent smell of sewage in the science wing, outdated and unwelcoming spaces, and continuously out of order bathrooms are just some of the issues students and teachers have with the current building.
Flooded hallways, leaky roofs, a persistent smell of sewage in the science wing, outdated and unwelcoming spaces, continuously out of order bathrooms, and an HVAC system that varies only between swelteringly hot or chillingly cold — these are just a few of the issues prompting Bristol Warren school personnel to rally support for a $200 million bond to re-build Mt. Hope High School and make upgrades to other schools throughout the district.
Last week’s front page story chronicled the financial cost of this proposed effort for Bristol and for Warren, which will go to residents of each community for a vote during the Special Election on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
This week we will explore why educators are calling for this unprecedented investment in the school district, and take a glance at what that money could do.
RELATED: See what students are saying about their experience in the high school.
A school of failing systems
Following an early-morning tour of the high school this past Friday, Superintendent Ana Riley, Principal Michelle King, and School Committee Chairperson Nicky Piper all agreed that the district should seek to do better for the hundreds of kids who call the high school home for so many days during some of their most formative years.
The tour highlighted various deficiencies throughout the school: a bathroom in the nurse’s office that is physically too small to accommodate a wheelchair; computer servers shoved into whatever random rooms have space, including one stack located directly under visibly water-damaged ceiling tiles; water fountains that don’t work; and bathrooms that continuously break down and provide little to no privacy to students who might need to use them.
Larger issues have also popped up frequently, like a break in an underground water pump that forced a recent closure of the building a couple weeks back, and clogs in plumbing that result in strong raw sewage smells forcing classes to relocate and alter lesson plans.
Riley said that keeping up with the maintenance has been a continuous financial burden to the district, and will continue to be indefinitely if the root issues are not addressed.
“We are losing system after system after system,” she said. “We don't have the money to wholesale replace the systems. So we're buying pieces of things. Eventually, that's not going to work and we're gonna have to replace the whole system.”
She noted that financial projections from their building consultancy team demonstrated that the cost to rehabilitate the outdated building would be comparable to or likely exceed the cost of building an entirely new school — and that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) would not provide full reimbursement for simply renovating an outdated school. With a new school, however, designed with modern energy efficiency systems in mind, they could capture an unprecedented 83% reimbursement rate for the bond.
Riley said there are additional savings associated with building a new school. Currently, the district pays $120,000 annually in flood insurance for the two schools located within a flood zone (Mt. Hope and Guiteras Elementary in Bristol). The new high school would be built outside of the flood zone, and Guiteras would eventually be shuttered as part of the district’s reorganization, removing the need for the insurance, she said.
“I think it's important for the people who think we're just trying to make something that looks nicer to understand that the mechanical systems are failing and have been failing,” Riley said. “There should be a neutral shift for a few years as we have more efficient buildings and our population is not growing. There will always be contractual increases, cost of living increases, but there will be an overall savings with the efficiencies that we’ll have in terms of electric, gas, and water, the insurance on the flood zone. The mechanical replacements will be a cost savings.”
Principal King said that the consistent challenges associated with the building itself has worn on instructional staff.
“They sort of have to make do. We’re preparing kids for a future and we don’t have the facilities that demonstrate what that future should look like or feel like,” she said. “It does wear on them. It seems silly, but climate control issues or electrical issues in classrooms — like there’s a classroom where the lights don’t work — these are the things that are a little bit like death by a thousand cuts.”
Bringing back excitement to the school
The tour revealed other factors about the learning environment at Mt. Hope. Low ceilings create a cramped atmosphere on the upper floors, which become swelteringly hot during the warmer months. Large, window-abundant hallways suited more for a sunny California school leak heat and are prone to flooding from Silver Creek, which literally runs underneath some of those walkways. Excessive amounts of exterior doors create a security nightmare.
Classrooms that are now utilized for career and technical education (CTE) were not originally designed for those uses, so teachers are tasked with finding creative ways to differentiate those spaces from traditional classrooms. A look into a chemistry room revealed many of the gas hookups for Bunsen burners don’t actually work (the active ones are marked with colorful tape).
“The factor that gives kids the most success is engagement. And there's nothing about this building that inherently engages kids,” Riley said. “The staff is doing it, the people are doing it, but the building itself doesn't add to that in any way.”
School Committee Chairperson Piper pointed to areas like the auditorium and the gym, both of which are tucked away into separate corners of the building with no area to receive members of the community, and which must be accessed through academic wings of the building, creating another security threat.
“This school is not a secure school, and it is not a community building,” Piper said. “The auditorium and the athletic center should be community spaces, and there is nothing about these spaces right now that feels like a community.”
The new school design incorporates not only a new auditorium and athletic complex complete with those communal spaces (and separated from the academic wings), but also an entire wing with purposefully built spaces for CTE learning, including a media center, large workshops for mechanical trades instruction like the new construction program, and business classrooms brimming with technology and collaborative spaces for group work.
“We want our teachers as excited and enthusiastic about instruction as possible, and they do a great job,” King said. “But think of the potential when they really have the environment and the tools and the space to do the things that we know are best practices in education to do.”
What $200 million buys
The itemized list adding up to a $200 million school bond is extensive. The summary appendix of purchases that go into that alone — from site work necessary to prepare for construction, to mechanical systems and interior furnishings and beyond — is dozens of pages long just for the high school project, which comes in as by far the largest portion of the bond at an estimated $165.1 million (including a contingency of over $7 million for cost overruns).
But not to be forgotten in the scope of work is $13.8 million planned for Kickemuit Middle School, $8.39 million for Hugh Cole, $7 million for Rockwell, and $5.16 million for Colt Andrews. The majority of work proposed at those schools are for crucial repairs identified in the district’s needs assessment, which includes roof repairs, new HVAC systems, fire alarms, door locks, and a laundry list of plumbing and electrical work.
Included within the project scope are hundreds of variations of construction designs — everything from double-paned windows instead of triple-paned windows to less expensive but still refundable hybrid geothermal heating systems — which Riley said were strategic decisions to keep the work under $200 million, but also to provide possibilities for upgrades during construction if certain costs come in under budget, or downgrades in case there are overruns.
“Certain things were compromised, but for good reasons,” she said in a recent interview. “There were some of the top shelf things we didn’t put in because we were trying to stay under that $200 million number.”